Guy D'Alema/FX
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June 01, 2018 at 07:00 PM EDT

Growing up in a working-class family in Southern California, Lakeith Stanfield’s found his escape as a child in movies, watching everything from The Lion King to Boyz n the Hood to Jim Carrey comedies, and closely analyzing the characters. “I had to have an imagination when I was little because there wasn’t much there. A lot of brick walls and stuff — I didn’t have much,” the actor tells EW.

Reflecting on his path to success, the 26-year-old says, “I think I am now what I dreamed I would be then.”

That dream includes his breakout role in 2013’s indie hit Short Term 12 and the impressive seven projects he was in last year, including Jordan Peele’s ground-breaking racial horror satire Get Out. He also plays a National Security Agency agent chasing Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) in November’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, and in July, he leads Boots Riley’s feature directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, a zany satire that takes place in a reimagined Oakland, Calif., within an alternate reality.

“I’ve always wanted to be in a sci-fi movie,” Stanfield says. “They allow us to express things in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re beating someone over the head.”

In Sorry, Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a man who’s living on the brink of becoming homeless — until he lands a telemarketing job where he is taught the secret of adopting “white voice” to win over clients on the phone. Though Cassius soars up the corporate ladder, he finds himself struggling with his identity. It took Stanfield three readings of Sorry to Bother You before he could fully comprehend just how the film tackles what it means to be black in America today.

“I realized it was really special, and I knew I had to be a part of it,” he explains. “It also spoke to me on many levels — not only of economics and revolt and standing up for what you believe in, but there’s some very particular racial things that we black people deal with and [that] we joke about all the time amongst ourselves, but it’s never really expressed in a way that’s ingestible.”

And then there’s his role as the intellectual Darius on FX’s Atlanta, and more specifically, starring in the creepy April 5 “Teddy Perkins” episode in which Darius goes to pick up a free piano from Teddy Perkins, a reclusive, Michael Jackson-esque pop star who lives in a mansion that doubles as a museum for his abusive father. What should be a simple transaction devolves into a frightening and odd encounter that ends with the murder-suicide of Teddy and his piano-playing, wheelchair-bound, and disfigured brother Benny Hope.

Stanfield told EW what it was like to film that episode, whether it was indeed Donald Glover behind the Teddy Perkins mask, and how he prepared for the intense final scene.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How was Atlanta season 2 different from season 1 for you?
LAKEITH STANFIELD: Wooobaaabeebaaaboobaabeblubleblobleboobeeeebooperrrrrrr! Yeah, that’s what I think.

Do you want to expand on that?
(makes more noises) This is America.

You’re no stranger to filming surreal things having just done Sorry To Bother You, but “Teddy Perkins” — what was it like shooting that episode?
Very strange. I felt very creeped out the whole day because I didn’t know what was going on, no one told me anything about what was going on. I did one read of the episode, but I hadn’t touched it since so I didn’t really have details of what would be going down that day. I kind of just showed up for work and was sucked into a rabbit hole.

There was this really creepy old house in Georgia, this really big estate which I’m 99.9999999999 percent sure was a plantation with house slaves at one point. There was a big tree in the front yard that had a man’s face carved into it and it looked like a black man’s face and it was very disturbing. Just walking into the house, I got this air of old dusty, southern s— that is just…I felt as creeped out as when I was filming Get Out, when I sort of was walking through that neighborhood. It was a similar situation to that. The history of the South is f—ed up, it’s horrendous and it’s a holocaust on black people so being in that space again, you kind of felt some weird energy. So I was creeped out the whole time and I had no idea who Teddy Perkins was, and they were like, “He’s this guy.” And he was very strange, and I’ve never seen anyone that looks like him, sounded like him, and so it completely threw me off. I had no idea what was going on and it was very much a trip. The way Darius felt was quite similar to the way I felt — uncomfortable throughout the duration of shooting it.

What was it like to have Donald Glover sitting opposite you in white face?
It was strange. I never knew that that was Donald, I never got confirmation on that actually. I just had no idea who the hell that was, and I thought he just came out of nowhere. I was like, “Who’s Teddy Perkins?” and everybody’s like, “I don’t know,” so I looked him up and there was nothing online but when I talked to him, he said he had been acting for years, so it was really strange. And they called “cut” and it was Teddy, and when I saw him get makeup done, it was Teddy. I didn’t see any prosthetics, so I didn’t know. I had no idea who it was and I still don’t quite know, so it was very weird for me.

One of the other actors confirmed it was Donald, but it must have been so weird because you didn’t know the actor you were doing this insane scene with. I imagine you usually get to know your other co-stars before an intense scene like this?
I mean, sometimes, sometimes not. It depends. But yeah, I sat down with him and talked with him because he was on set but I had no idea who the f— it was and I guess I heard that guy say that, but I still have my suspicions. I don’t know. I don’t f—ing know.

How did you brace yourself for that scene and, specifically, the murder-suicide?
I didn’t brace myself at all. I think you don’t want to be braced, you want to immerse yourself in the moment and let it unravel. I forgot that any of it was going to happen the moment they said action, so when it happened, it was a genuine response. It was like, “Woah, okay. Somebody just got their f—ing head blown off” and “Oh, okay, it happened again, ok, cool. So, I need to exit, I need to find a way out.”

When you went home from that day of shooting, how did you feel? Did it stick with you?
I really was thinking about that piano all night. It was really crazy, I was definitely thinking about it for a long time afterward.

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